(Romans 14: 1-12; Matthew 18:21-35) By Rev. Jacob Kanake –The subject of forgiveness is widely discussed inside and outside of the church. Today, forgiveness is even studied in the academic fields (masters and Ph.D. level). Psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and spiritual care professionals say the practice of forgiveness has many health and spiritual benefits. There is consensus across several academic disciplines that forgiveness, spoken about in religious realms for about 20 centuries, is now an accepted public subject.
In today’s readings, Jesus focuses on the subject of forgiveness at the individual level because individuals have the power to influence what happens around them; individuals can choose to forgive. This personal forgiveness has real impact on the people who are the offended.
What is Forgiveness? Forgiveness is a new covenant that was inaugurated by Jesus Christ (Mark 2:5-11), which embodies God’s promise to his people, “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). Before the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus, forgiveness was implicit. That is, until Christ came to fulfil it.
When forgiveness happens, the offended person takes an action and lives as if the offense never happened. The forgiveness is best expressed if the offender asks the offended to forgive. The offended may forgive out of compassion and in response to Christ (Ephesian 4:32). In the process of forgiving, the offended person may rebuke the offender by expressing anger, pain, and hurt instead of continuing to keep grudges toward the offender. Forgiving does not mean condoning the offense or allowing the offender to continue hurting the victim. Last week, we learned the process of reconciliation when an offense is done. Today, the victim is empowered to be assertive on expressing the pain and willingness to forgive.
There are many reasons why forgiveness is necessary. One, the offended person forgives to be free of resentment and hostility. In this case, the offended person forgives the person who offended them for self-benefit and not necessarily for the offender’s benefit. Secondly, the forgiving person feels positive and works to reduce negative feelings by setting up a welcoming tone to the offender, despite the offense. And third, in a close relationship or with acquaintances, the forgiving person forgives with the hope that the offender is willing to restore the lost relationship and start a new chapter. Fourth, both the offender and the offended are willing to settle the conflict peacefully for the sake of their life or those who depend on them.
When forgiveness takes place, the issue of power and control may be addressed (because in the church, a master and slave mentality ought not to exist). The offended person has the option to continue or terminate the relationship with the offender. When Jesus says forgiveness has no limits, he does not mean that people allow themselves to continue being offended or victimized intentionally. Forgiving has a limit when an individual’s life is in danger. Forgiveness should occur without causing physical, emotional or spiritual injury to the offended or the offender. When one is offended, ghastly resentment builds up quickly and retaliation can seem like the only remedy; sometimes the offended person wants revenge or to fight back. I do not know about you, but when I am offended, often negative thoughts build very fast and cloud my normal reasoning. Scientists tells me it is because of the adrenaline rush—a sudden increase of the stress hormone secreted from the adrenal glands that prepares me to fight or flight. When things settle down, the fat from cortisol is stored back into the waistline. Charlette’s research shows that unforgiving people have large fat mass on their waistline.
Forgiving is a Christian duty: Despite our physiological ineffectiveness, Christ advises that vengeance is not ours; it belongs to God (Deuteronomu 32:34; Romans 12:19), because God is the judge, not ourselves. God will take care of those who hurt others because God knows their motive and can avenge at an opportune time. Jesus calls us to maintain peace with others and ourselves. Jesus uses the parable of the servant/slave and master to illustrate this point. During the time of Jesus, the ancient world was influenced by the Greek culture that allowed slaves to own property. In most cases, masters entrusted their slaves to manage their properties and to keep their accounts. The slaves were free to invest their money by lending to other people like their masters. Therefore, Jesus tells of a slave whose master forgave a debt; however, this slave did not in return forgive the debt of his own debtor, but forced the debtor and his family into prison instead. The master of the mean slave decided that the mean slave did not practice forgiveness and therefore should also pay back the debt that the master had forgiven.
Jesus used this parable to teach a necessity of forgiving injuries caused to us without counting the number of offenses!
This parable is also a reminder of the Lord’s Prayer that we say every Sunday and during our private prayers. Forgiving others is not a simple task. Those who attend Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) know that to stop drinking or taking drugs, they need daily practice of the serenity prayer, the principles of the AA book, regular attendance at the AA meetings, and a sponsor.
The same practice is needed for Christians: we ought to practice forgiveness daily and remind ourselves of the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us as we forgive those who wrong us.” Genuine Christians must constantly remember God guides our thoughts and actions. We should not take on God’s responsibility for judging others, including any offender.
Are we stupid and unreasonable if we allow God to fight our battles? Does being patient with those who offend us make us lesser human beings?
I read many forgiveness stories this week and some people’s comment caught my attention. One person said, “I cannot forgive. I am not God; if anyone hurts me, I will revenge very fast. I do not like religion, they want me to remain in a hurting relationship.” Another said, “I cannot stand those who hurt others.” Listening to these voices makes one wonder what God feels with human provocations. While I’ve wanted to play God on some provocations, the reading reminded me that God is merciful and forgives out of compassion. God also does not keep an account of human offenses/sins, which is why Jesus asks humans to forgive without limits—70 x 7 times.
St. Matthew states forgiveness should be without limit whether the offender asks for it or not. St. Luke goes a little further to maintain that an offender should be rebuked and forgiven if the offender asks for forgiveness (Luke 17:3-4). Though it is necessary to rebuke and hold offenders accountable for their offense, we also realize that Jesus paid the human debts on the cross, making us free to have fellowship with God like children have fellowship with their parents. We can hold offenders accountable and not keep account of offenses, but forgive others without limit instead.
What can we forgive? Forgiveness is a gift from God; it is offered to all who believe in God by repenting all offenses/sins and trusting God through Christ (Acts 20:21). For those who believe in God, there is no limit of offenses that one can forgive including heinous offenses (Matthew 18:27). Christian ethics demand that forgiveness be done without fines. God through Christ encourages us to offer unconditional forgiveness to those who offend us (Matthew 18:35). However, if the forgiven offender wants to pay back what was taken, like property or money, he/she should be allowed to return it. For example, Zacchaeus, a tax collector at Jericho, returned the money he had taken illegally from taxpayers (Luke 19:1-10).
The secular justice demands that those who commit offenses be punished, and that is where justice and Godly forgiveness clash. The law of the land/justice may not advocate forgiving under all circumstances like religion does. But I know that restitution, a sincere apology, or a punishment imposed by the law can sometimes make it easier for an offender to grant forgiveness. When the law of the land is applied fairly, it may benefit both the offender and the offended. When we forgive those who offend us, do we stop the law of the land from doing its justice?
What happens if we do not forgive: The unforgiving person appears stressful and unpleasant; he appears and feels angry, sad, anxious, and less in control. Refer to the forgiven slave in Matthew 18:28-31: The behavior of this slave correlates with Charlotte’s research on unforgiving people. When he asked unforgiving people to try to empathize with their offenders or to imagine forgiving them, their physical arousal went downward. The same study shows that people with unforgiven grudges have many symptoms of illness, including high blood pressure, high heart rate, and facial muscle tension. When you live around unforgiving people, you will experience their reactions and feel uncomfortable and often you get stressed out.
It is better to forgive for our own good health than live with resentment and hostility.
Forgiving people have high self-esteem, better moods, and happier relationships. The Bible shows that most forgiving people have positive emotions toward their offenders; these people experience changes in physiology, including lowered blood pressure. A person who forgives replaces the feelings of revenge with a caring altitude and is driven to reconcile with the offender. Those who experience positive emotions toward their offenders are more likely to forgive them.
Forgiving means continuing to work for the good of the other without malice or revenge, despite the past incident that affected you. This sends a message to the offender and to those around the offended that love is stronger than fear and hate. Working lovingly does not mean one has forgotten the offenses, but one continues loving despite the negative thoughts that remind them of the past abhorrent deeds.
When people live together, mistakes and conflicts are inevitable. It is the same as when coins are in a pocket; they rub against each other and make noise. Some people have personalities (sharp corners) that irritate those who interact with them. If the theology of forgiveness has proved anything, it is that these irritations do not lead to condemning us into a life of hurts and aggression (Ephesians 4:27).
I know forgiveness is real but not easy. The Kenyan nation did it; they forgive their colonizers. The British colonized Kenya from 1894 to 1963, denying the local people a voice in everything: politics, religion, and economy. Kenyans fought for their freedom (thousands of people died) and won independence in 1963. The first Kenyan president asked the Kenyans to forgive the Britons and not to seek revenge by killing them or taking the British property by force. The nation was receptive and the Britons who choose to stay after independence lived in peace. The Britons who wanted to leave sold their property and left. That is what forgiveness means. Forgiveness is for the brave, not the weak. It takes God’s grace to forgive and to keep forgiving when past negative emotions may come back and bring one down emotionally. Be brave!